In his essay Writing for the Theatre, Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter wrote about his pauses, which would become one of his calling cards. In his 1957 play The Birthday Party, he used dashes in the script to indicate them, and in 1959’s The Caretaker, he used dots.
“It’s possible to deduce from this that dots are more popular than dashes and that’s why The Caretaker had a longer run than The Birthday Party. The fact that in neither case could you hear the dots and dashes in performance is beside the point,” he said, presumably chuckling to himself.
His point, perhaps, is that what the audience doesn’t know might not be important if the intent is there. This is key for his plays, which are performed with exacting reverence by directors, down to every last detail of the stage directions and in the text. That doesn’t mean directors can’t interject their own ideas, especially in his early absurdist works.
That’s what director Tim Johnson does successfully with Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, opening the 25th season for Kitchen Dog Theater. The silver anniversary is big, but it’s more notable because this season KDT is in a temporary home at the Green Zone in the Dallas Design District, after leaving its longtime home at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, which was sold.
The Dumb Waiter, written in 1957 and first performed in 1960, is a beautifully shaped one-act about two hit men, Ben (Christopher Carlos, with a wavering accent) and Gus (Michael Federico), who await instructions about their next assignment in a windowless basement. That eventually comes through a series of deliveries on the title object, a dumb waiter — a clever title with multiple connotations here.
In the opening scene, Pinter writes in a bit of wordless comedy as Gus laces his shoes, walks, feels something in one of them, then takes off the shoe — all while Ben watches over the newspaper he’s reading.
The instructions are simple, but Johnson goes a few extra steps by adding in the comedy of Gus having a hard time lacing the shoes and, upon realizing there’s something in one of them, jumping on the other foot while trying to un-shoe. It makes the scene a few minutes longer, and that’s OK. Federico plays the clown masterfully — it might be one of the funniest bits of physical comedy seen in a while on a local stage.
It also sets up the idea that although Pinter has written a play about two killers — and with a heart murmur of a surprise ending — it’s filled with plenty of comic moments, most of which Johnson and his cast capture with precise timing. Because Gus has been given an extra bit of numbskullery, the ending is even more of a jolt. What does it all mean? Pinter leaves that up to you.
It’s a funny performance, but sadly, working in this new space has some setbacks for this production. The Green Zone is a reconfigurable black-box space, and scenic designer Clare Floyd DeVries has it basically proscenium style, with two sides of the audience seating in a slight V-shape and the set at the same angle on the opposite side.
As the script dictates, the dumb waiter is between two beds, but because not everyone in the audience can really see what’s in there (or not) when it opens, some suspense is lost.
John M. Flores’ sound design of the arriving items, and the tube that Ben later speaks into, is terrific. Same thing with the fact that unless you’re in one of the first two rows one either side, you probably can’t see items that slide under the door. Perhaps the audience, and the set, in a straight line would have worked better.
But just think back to the opening sequence and Federico’s physical performance, filled with dashes and dots, and it’s all worth it.